When I booked my train ticket from Bangalore to Delhi it seemed like a good idea. Cheap, in an air conditioned carriage, travelling through four different states all on the backbone of India’s travel network. But with four hours to go, the 38 hour journey doesn’t seem such a good idea.
I made this debatable decision whilst still at Mitraniketan. Despite my numerous frustrations and the amusing (but not at the time) anecdotes, I was sad to leave. A few days away helped me realize what a beneficial place it is for the community. It should be used as an example of an institution that aims to answer two of the key issues in India today and does so successfully. One is caste. Most of the children come from the scheduled or tribal castes, the lowest in India. The UK might be overly PC at times but India certainly isn’t. Numerous definitions of scheduled caste include words and phrases like ‘the untouchables’ and ‘considered to be polluting to all higher castes’. Whilst not as prevalent as it once was the caste system still exists to some extent. Linked to this, the second issue Mitraniketan addresses is the rapidly increasing rural urban inequality and neglect of rural/tribal communities. Mitraniketan tries to make rural communities more sustainable as the rural urban brain drain continues and the crippling lack of investment in rural areas persists. Between 65-70% (depending on sources) of India’s population live in rural areas so you can see how important the issue is. Mitraniketan is getting recognition though as this article in The Hindu, a national newspaper, illustrates. So if you are looking to volunteer in India I highly recommend this place – you’ll have fun, get very frustrated, learn a hell of a lot about India and be part of a community that is trying to answer some of India’s biggest problems. And the view from the top of visitor’s guesthouse and the chai there are amazing.
So having left Mitraniketan, I’ve left Kerala. Before I came out a friend had said Kerala was by far his favorite state in India and I can see why. It has amazing beaches, the backwaters that it is famed for and a stunning mountain range, the Western Ghats, which deserves its own blog; it’s that good. The state has the highest literacy rate in India and the longest life expectancy, and in general the people reflect this is in how content they seem. And one reason I wouldn’t mind moving here is because the state also has up to 30 state holidays a year! Well known for its religious harmony, the generous holiday allowance takes into account up to seven religions festivities. But politically it is all over the place. Adding to the 30 state holidays, it’s common that there’ll be at least an additional five days a year taken up by political strikes. There were two during my two month stay at Mitraniketan. And these weren’t organized by the public but by the opposition party, adding to the corruption which apparently plagues the state. It supposedly had the first democratically elected Communist Party in the world and the communist influence is still rife, with the party only having lost power in 2011 and still holds a lot of support. To say politics in Kerala is ‘interesting’ is an understatement.
As I make my way north, one of the biggest things I’ll miss is the food. The south Indian cuisine is to die for. And this is coming from someone who doesn’t usually give the light of day to vegetarian food! Masala Dosa is my favourite. Typically eaten for breakfast but served all day, it is spicy potato in a pancake. Thali is a close second and is the ‘go to’ meal down here. The south Indian version is served on a banana leaf. Rice is dumped into the middle with dal, vegetables, appalam (version of a poppadom), curd and small amounts of chutney and pickle spread around the outside. The rice and most of the other ingredients are unlimited and cost the equivalent of about 25p. And of course you have to eat with your hands…Now I have a technique but I’m not sure it’s the technique. Either way it must be improving as I’m not getting as many stares as I used to. If only I’d watched Rick Stein’s India.
So I can certainly say Kerala is an amazing place. But calling it ‘God’s Own Country’ is a stretch too far. We can all safely agree that there’s only one place deserving of such a title…and that’s Yorkshire. [Editor’s note – India has clearly been getting to James!] Kerala is a very worthy second though.
Now it’s time for that train journey…